Friday 1 December 2006

Book Review

With Blogger apparently having a few problems here and there and not allowing me to publish what I had intended to today (or is it my general incapability again), here's something I wrote last Friday:

I would like to dedicate today's bird-related spare time to a monumental work about the birds and especially the birding in Michigan by reviewing the book:

"A Birder's Guide to Michigan"
Allen T. Chartier and Jerry Ziarno, ABA Birdfinding Guide, ISBN 1-878788-13-2

Do you like what you see on the cover? Then you will surely like the content of the book as well because this is essential reading for any birder beyond the borders of Michigan.
This book review could indeed be very short:
Do you want to see more in Michigan than the Kirtland's Warbler?
Yes? Go get it!
do you only plan a visit to Michigan to see Kirtland's Warbler on an organized tour from Grayling or Mio? Yes? Then go get it as well and change your mind!

I made use of this book extensively during my travels through Michigan in May 2005 and if I was to invite the authors to a beer for every lifer I got thanks to them (a nice ol' tradition back in Germany), they might as well just hand in their driver's licenses at the local police station and forget about walking in a straight line for a long, long time.

The content
This book is obviously about finding birds in Michigan and provides detailed information on birds and birding beyond pure site descriptions. The introductory chapters are about Michigan's basic topography, climate, the vegetation zones, and the birds' habitats, so anyone planning a visit basically knows what they're heading for. There's also a short summary of the Michigan birding year which highlights the main attractions for each month and is fun to read even when you are fixed to a certain time period. I also enjoyed the "Hazards" section, but try as hard as I might, I never managed a dangerous encounter with a Black Bear. Frankly, I didn't even manage any encounter with a Black Bear at all, which I think was a lousy performance from this Bell Tower birder here.
The next very useful section is on Resources for Birders and covers everything from the map you should choose to telephone numbers of nature reserves and Internet Chat Groups or rarities hot lines. Very good, very extensive!

The main part of the book - you guessed it - covers the different birding hot spots of Michigan. The many sites are treated on roughly one page each, but certain areas like Whitefish Point are described much more extensively. The essays for each site are basically divided into a first section on how to get there, followed by a short description of the habitats and geographical structure or the main birding attractions. What follows then is a short narrative on how to bird the area and what to expect in which part. Each site description is accompanied by a small map.
An excellent chapter that follows the site descriptions treats the wheres and whens of finding the Michigan specialities, and no less than 126 species (more than a quarter of the Michigan birdlist) are covered, with the text ranging from 3 lines to almost a quarter of a page. This section is very useful for birders specifically trying to find certain species as it highlights the best season and the most dependable spot(s). You can then refer to the appropriate site descriptions in the main text to obtain the more detailed information.
As if all this wasn't already plenty of information, the authors have added a chapter on the status and the occurrence of Michigan birds with bar graphs showing seasonal changes for the three main areas (Upper Peninsular, Northern Lower and Southern Lower Peninsular) of the state for each species.
Finally, there are commented check lists of Michigan's mammals, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies, and orchids as well as a short list of "neat places to botanize".

The Review
Now that you've been told what this book is about, should you buy it?
Well, I suppose I gave the result of this review away right in the first few sentences, so there's no surprise here: yes, you should!
It really is essential reading for anyone interested in seeing the birds of Michigan in Michigan or learning about the birding year at such famous sites as Tawas Point or Whitefish Point. If you use it in combination with the DeLorme's Atlas, you will have no difficulties finding the birding spots described in the text and the descriptions of the sites themselves are very precise and accurate, providing all the information necessary to ensure a smooth and successful birding trip. I did not come across a single mistake whatsoever using it!
But it surely can't all be good, so where's the downside of things?
Well, there really isn't much to be honest, and even though I have found a few things to be difficult when using the book, I do not know how these difficulties could have been avoided.
The first and only real problem I frequently encountered is not the book's fault but a problem of the US automobile industry: the book often describes distances with "half a mile" or "2.4 miles after the turn-off", but all of my rental cars here only showed complete miles and no decimals, so it was down to guessing if I had already covered 0.5 or 0.7 miles when looking for a described turn-off or birding spot.
Another "problem" or rather inconvenience actually arises out of the immensity of birding sites described. To go through all of these in order to establish an itinerary is not an easy task and will take a few hours at best, some patience and pen and paper as well. When switching from one site to another (e.g. to determine which site is more dependable for seeing a certain species), it is often necessary to make a detour to the content table or index and then return to the text. The next difficulty is that the species' names aren't highlighted within the text, so if you have looked up a few good sites for a species in the index, you'll have to read through the whole sites' descriptions to find where that particular species is mentioned and which one looks like to most dependable or most convenient site for it.
Another slight problem might be the weight of the book, especially for visitors from overseas who have weight limits on their flights to the US: it is roughly twice the size and weight of the small Sibley Guide to the birds of eastern North America.
For those few who have read it and still plan on visiting Peele in Ontario and to only quickly venture into Michigan for a day or two to see the Kirtland's Warbler, it might not really be necessary to take it along.
Those travelling more extensively through Michigan however will have to cope with the weight, but at least the book is worth every gram (or ounce for that matter) and should be regarded as an indispensable tool on your travels, as indispensable as an identification guide.

So cheers to the authors and all the contributors and good birding in Michigan!!

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